Lord Sycamore: Understory
New Father: Story Under the Song
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
The “New Father” lyric video is forthcoming.
Hear the episode for “New Father" on the Understory podcast!
Read the lyrics here.
Download "Child Coming Home" or listen on YouTube.
Donate on Patreon.
"Story Under the Song" for “New Father”
track 8 from Child Coming Home (album, 2019)
WHERE DID THE SONG COME FROM?
Before my son was born in 2016, I was working in a big Floridian cafeteria as a steward. Each day, I’d receive and unpack food deliveries. Then I’d stock and organize the storage spaces.
Every time the delivery man backed up the truck and unloaded the milk boxes, I'd grit my teeth. These 5-gallon boxes came in flimsy cardboard, and the plastic bags inside them held skim, 2%, and chocolate milk which was prone to spoil in the Florida heat. With each delivery, I’d rush to stash the milk in the cooler as fast as I could.
One day, probably in mid-May of 2016, we got a massive delivery of milk. Within minutes of working on it, my back was aching, my forehead was sweating, and I was wanting some relief. What I got instead was a shock that made me forget all those other sensations.
As I hoisted a box of chocolate milk onto the shelf, I noticed the expiration date: June 13th, 2016. At first I smiled. Then I panicked, and I broke into a cold sweat that had nothing to do with being in a walk-in cooler. The milk’s expiration date was the same as my son’s due date.
As a kind of self-therapy, I came up with Verse 1 of "New Father" over the rest of the day. I imagined a music video for the song complete with banging hospital doors, squeaking gurney wheels, and earsplitting newborn wails. (That sort of auditory imagination would feed into how I told the story of the second bridge.)
HOW DID THE SONG GROW?
But before I wrote any more of the song than Verse 1, a lot of life happened. First of all, our son was born. I got the privilege of being in the delivery room with my wife and telling her stories about other long-distance races she'd won. By God’s grace, the experience wasn’t anywhere near as terrifying as my imagination in the walk-in-cooler had convinced me it would be.
A few weeks after our son was born, I played a show at a local coffee shop. Just for fun, but with some sheepishness, I “premiered” all 30 seconds of Verse 1 to the audience, which was mainly my parents and their friends. There were a few others parents of grown children there too.
After playing that verse, I looked up, feeling apologetic. To my surprise and relief, I saw they'd been listening closely to the words. I also saw that they'd been looking, with understanding eyes, from me playing the keyboard to my wife holding our baby. Many of them were smiling. After my set, some of the parents came up to me to tell me stories about their first children.
"One who walks with wise men grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm." - Proverbs 13:20 (WEB)
After I connected with those parents, I started thinking about my life differently. I remember journaling while looking back on my life from an older person's perspective. Through that process, it became clear that I needed to make some big decisions, and that I needed to change as a person.
First, the big decisions. In having a child, my wife and I realized just how much we needed to "plug in" to a community of Jesus followers, particularly one with other kids. We also realized that we needed to choose careers and lifestyles better suited to our family’s needs and our gifts. In particular, I wanted to work somewhere more explicitly geared towards the life of the mind. With those factors in mind, I applied for a job at a Christian school near both my wife's hometown and much of her extended family.
At this point, my wife and I were just of shy of one year into our marriage, yet here we were holding a baby and making what felt like our biggest decisions yet. Most of those decisions felt like no’s to things we already loved. I wrote the first half of Verse 2 (“I had so many dreams now gone from my life / like the hair of a dog that is shedding”) as an attempt to chuckle at the profound confusion we were feeling.
But secondly, reflecting "back" on my life made me realize how much I needed to change. See, the cafeteria where I worked had given me a month or so of paternity leave. I wanted to build a career as a songwriter, so I planned to make music during that time. But I found that I wasn't disciplined, and that when I had the opportunity to work without external compulsion, I wouldn't. I was lazy. I tried to write the second half of Verse 2, but I couldn't make myself finish it.
But to be honest, there was a bigger reason that I couldn't finish the second half of Verse 2: it lay stifled under my selfishness. All the lyrics I tried were poorly-disguised and self-pitying jokes about how my wife now gave the baby more attention than she gave me. I spent the first several months after my son's birth wrestling with feelings of resentment-- resentment that my son was so loud and needy, or that my wife was so tired and unavailable, or that I wasn't making much progress as a songwriter.
I hid these feelings fairly well-- not only from my family, but often from myself. But as would be the case with "Lilac Orchestra," the song couldn't grow until I did. I needed to enter the song not only as a place to be honest about my feelings, but also as a place to seek and to express the truth.
WHAT'S THE BIGGER STORY?
1. "But love grew me up"
The second half of Verse 2 didn't yield to me for another year or so. For one thing, a lot changed for us, and we were busy-- I got the teaching job, and we moved from Florida to Pennsylvania to start it. But when I did start working on it again, I tried harder, as my first year of teaching and of fatherhood had given me a well-needed kick in the work ethic.
But I still couldn't make headway on Verse 2-- that is, until one day when I read 1 Corinthians 13 and found a helpful summary of how I'd grown and what I was growing toward.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. - 1 Corinthians 13:11 (NIV)
Verse 11 and its surrounding chapter put things into perspective for me in two ways. First, from the verse, I saw that I'd changed-- I'd become a man through having and caring for children, and I'd experienced a definite break from my childhood and adolescence. Second, from the larger passage, I saw that love was one of the few things that could outlast the world, and that love was the goal toward which I now needed to aim my adult efforts. Accordingly, love was the answer to the missing half of Verse 2.
But it turned out that love wasn't an easy thing to write about. In fact, this encounter with Scripture started a second, harder period of reflection than that first period my insights from journaling had caused. That first period gave clarity was about things "outside of me" — my job, my church community, my family, and the like. This second period stirred up unpleasant truths about things "inside of me," about my disordered loves.
1 Corinthians 13 forced me to admit to myself and to God that the "dreams" I'd referenced in Verse 2 were all about me. I didn’t have or give the kind of love that 1 Corinthians 13 extols. And without that love, what good were my "dreams"? Without that love, even the best music I could make as a songwriter would be “a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal.”
"...looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." - Hebrews 12:2 (WEB)
The breakthrough came when I looked at the way that Jesus's love for His Father's children, as pictured in His life, death, and resurrection, are described in Hebrews 12. There, in essence, it says that Jesus endured through a hard life, laying aside all claim to comfort, ambition, or status. He even died in disgrace. But the power of God raised him to everlasting life as the forever king.
At first, I found myself relating to Jesus's love, to his sacrificing for the good for others. Through my own imperfect and stumbling experience of fatherhood and teaching, the Father was teaching me that love. I had, over the year since I started the song, grown to be a bit more like Jesus. I even started to feel proud of that fact.
But the description of Jesus's motivation-- of his joy-- broke my pride. I had to recognize that beneath my intention to love was a mere impulse towards religious duty. Like the older brother in Jesus's parable of the two sons, I wanted to "follow the rules," then get on with the things I really wanted (in my case, being a songwriter).
But like the father in the parable, God, in His love, is warm and relational. He, in His love, is genuinely interested in His children's good, and His arms are extended to embrace us. Jesus, the caring older brother who came to save a wayward younger brother like me, is the proof of that love.
So, to make a long story short, from 1 Corinthians 13, God taught me to reach for love as the kind of life that endures beyond all loss. And through the example of Jesus's love in Hebrews 12, God taught me that aiming towards love meant reaching-- with true delight and tender affection-- towards my son instead of towards my dreams. That move towards love didn't come naturally to my heart, but my encounter with Scripture helped me first to ask God for forgiveness and then to fold what I'd learn into the lyrics of Verse 2 and the bridge.
2. "Decades pass like fading grass"
Between work, church, and family, my wife and I got to know a few seasoned mentors who were willing to walk with us through our times of wrestling with God. Honestly, my exposure to 1 Corinthians 13 and Hebrews 12 may well have come through them.
As I got to know our mentors-- to see how they thought and lived as followers of Jesus-- I was given a fuller form of the gift I got back in the coffee shop in 2016. Back then, the parents of grown children who'd heard Verse 1 of "New Father" had told me their stories. In doing so, they'd validated the emotions I'd expressed in the song. Now, in allowing us to soak up their lives, our mentors (who were also parents of grown children) pointed us beyond our present feelings to a future reality, the force of which would shape Verse 3.
"13 Like a father has compassion on his children, so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him. 14 For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust. 15 As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. 16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more. 17 But Yahweh’s loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting with those who fear him, his righteousness to children’s children, 18 to those who keep his covenant, to those who remember to obey his precepts." - Psalm 103:13-18 (WEB)
In other words, our mentors were much older than us. At the dinner table, I saw their gray hair alongside my son's blond spikes, and I heard their bittersweet stories of raising kids now grown. Those experiences pressed home for me just how quickly this wild and precious life passes.
(I tried to express that quickness by compressing the son's growing up into 38 seconds of music. If you listen back to the second bridge from 1:44-2:22, you'll hear where I strung together three audio clips, each representing a different stage of life. The first clip was of my seven-week-old son crying, the second of my nine-year-old nephew echoing some of the song's words, and the third of my brother-in-law, who's older than I am now, singing first alongside and then with me.)
I'd learned that loving my son was very important, and now I couldn't think of much else in life that would matter as much as my investment in him. But, humanly speaking, I had no guarantee that this investment would pan out. Again, our mentors gave us of foresight here, sharing as they did some darker stories, ranging from the bitter-- like feeling estranged from or rejected by their children-- to the tragic -- like the death of their parents or even of their children.
The reality of all this loss and death staggered me. So, I thought, as beautiful a gift as loving my son and being loved by him is, what good is it if death snatches that gift away? What's it been for?
I had to swim against the current of my despair toward the bigger story told in Scripture. I found strength in Psalm 103:13-18, which, while not flinching from describing the awful reality of death, asserts that death doesn't win. Instead, Jesus wins.
"I give eternal life to them. They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” - John 10:28-30 (WEB)
Here's the bright hope that beat back the grey mist of my despair: first, that Jesus died on the cross to free God's people from idolatry and sin. Second, that Jesus was raised from the dead to live forever and to receive and save all who trust in Him. Third, that when we put in our trust in Jesus as our King, God establishes His covenant with us-- that is, He promises us His Fatherly care and protection at all times, even after death. And, finally, the bright hope of God committing to us in this way secures our place in Jesus's eternal Kingdom at the resurrection.
I was able to write Verse 3 out of the abundance of confidence God gave me that this story was true. Because of Jesus, I had the confidence that I could always know and rely on the love of my Heavenly Father, no matter what happened with my son. That's why the wistful and reflective strain in Verse 3 gives way to the note of triumph and joy with which the song ends.
So, in essence, "New Father" tells the story of how becoming a father taught me to know God as my Father and to learn to say "Father, I love you" back to him. Through the song, I'm trying to express how my meager but precious experience of being my son's dad is teaching me to enjoy the rich and endless privilege of being my Father's son.
3. Child Coming Home
To wrap up the story of the song: I finished writing "New Father" when I entered a songwriting competition in December 2017. The voice-and-piano version of it that I submitted to the contest didn't win, but at that point, winning didn't matter to me much. The process of writing the song and of thinking through the different stages in my spiritual journey had made me hungry to continue that journey towards God. In other words, finishing "New Father" spurred me on to make Child Coming Home.
I began looking for ways to connect "New Father" to the other songs I'd written at that point, which were "New Dawn" and "New Apartment." Just as when I'd worked to weave a story for "New Apartment" from the fragments of lyrics I'd been given, so now I tried to weave a story for Child Coming Home from these few disconnected songs.
Gradually, the character of the Singer-- of a man who wants a relationship, family, and home-- swam into focus. Working backwards, I saw that in Verse 3 of "New Father," the Singer is looking back at his life from a position of trust in his Father God. In "New Dawn," the Singer is learning to walk in that trust after choosing to follow Jesus. And in "New Apartment," the Singer doesn't know God at all, or at least is ignoring Him. The other songs on the album found their place in the larger story as strung between these three "mile markers" on the Singer's journey.
The last piece of the puzzle was the arrangement for "New Father." In summer of 2019, when I was tracking each song on the album, I kept trying to beef up the voice-and-piano version with drums and bass and guitar. That approach didn't work. The music felt stale and at odds with the lyrics and the message of the song.
Finally, my wife told me frankly, "This song is goofy. Use trombones."
Once I got over my pride, I had to laugh: she was right. I put trombones in Verse 1, as well as many other instruments with bright timbres (like the toy piano I sniped from my son to record the initial chromatic motif that resurfaces throughout the song). The many instrumental colors I included in "New Father"-- ranging from electronics to strings to choirs-- all came from my wife's refreshing honesty.
As mentioned in the story under the song for "Aching to Be Had," I wasn't planning to include any songs on Child Coming Home past "New Father." But eventually I did add "(Reprise) Aching to be Had" and "Passing Through (Psalm 84)." That's because in "New Father," though the Singer looks back retrospectively on the life he's lived so far, he still has a lot of life left to live. Even having gotten everything he wants-- his relationship, family, and home-- he's learned that those things, like dark and angled mirrors, point beyond themselves toward the radiant reality of the living God.
In essence, for all the goodness the Singer's enjoyed so far, there is more that he now wants and needs. He wants, as we'll hear in "(Reprise) Aching to Be Had" and "Passing Through (Psalm 84)," to be physically with God, who is the true lover, Father, and home that he needs.
But for now, that's the story of "New Father."